[This article was kindly contributed by Cara Jepsen. All photos were taken by Katy Schaffer]
I had planned to go to the grand opening of the Sri K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute USA in Florida originally scheduled for March of 2007. But he became very ill and wasn’t able to do it. The opening was postponed until this March, but it didn’t happen then, either. Pattabhi Jois (Guruji) was again quite ill.
When my friend Katy told me in April that Pattabhi Jois was coming to Florida over Memorial Day weekend, I laughed (at first). But this time I felt in my heart that he was going to come, so I bit the bullet and paid through the teeth for a plane ticket to Miami.
The new Institute was a few miles away from our hotel. Its lush grounds are exquisite. There’s a garden, benches, swings, flowers and a massive Nataraj (Dancing Shiva) fountain.
When we arrived, Guruji was arriving, too. Everyone was reverent–many holding bouquets of flowers–and waited for him to enter the building.
He was sitting in a large chair on the stage, wearing white, and a little thinner than I remember him, but clearly happy to be there. He’d been ill for some time, and this was his chance to finally see his dream of opening a shala in the U.S. come true. Guruji, 93, was flanked by his daughter, Saraswati, and granddaughter Sharmila, as well as her children. Four generations of the Jois Family all lined up.
The room is amazing. Bamboo floors. Large-scale photos of the family–including an entire wall featuring Guruji as a young man doing Ashtanga. There were also photos of Sharath (Saraswati’s son) in various poses, plus young (very young) Saraswati and her brother, Manju. My favorite is one of Amma (Guruji’s wife), Saraswati and Sharmila.
Saraswati and Manju were helping teach the weekend’s three classes.
The mood was much more casual than in Mysore, India (where I’ve studied with the Jois family at the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute four times), or for Guruji’s workshops in New York City (of which I’ve attended five). There was no line. But one at a time, people went up to Guruji and paid their respects. Some touched his feet; others did not. Just about everyone got their picture taken with him. I became overwhelmed with gratitude when it was my turn, and my eyes welled up with tears.
The room smelled of jasmine and other flowers. The largest contingents of people were from Florida and New York, including many familiar faces from Mysore and Guruji’s other U.S. workshops. I also saw several Ashtanga friends whom I’d seen at Lino Miele’s recent workshop in Chicago.
Longtime Guruji devotee and NYC teacher Eddie Stern, in all white, helped perform a puja (act of reverence) in a small temple area and then gave a brief speech. He said that Guruji wanted badly to open the shala, and that the reason his health was better was because of Saraswati’s constant care; when he said this, Saraswati simply bowed her head and said, â€œIt is my duty.â€ He also thanked Sharath (who was holding down the fort back in Mysore) and many others.
After another speaker, there was an Indian dance performance, during which Guruji left the stage and retired to another area.
The spacious, pleasant state-of-the-art facilities feature high ceilings, orange and yellow walls, a boutique, spacious showers and locker rooms, a private reception room for Guruji, kitchen and a large reception and dining area.
The latter was laden with the most sumptuous feast of North and South Indian foods I have ever seen. Despite anticipating the next day’s practice, when I got to the end of the buffet, my plate heaped high, I came upon a whole other room full of food and went for more. Again, the atmosphere was genial, casual and non-competitive–sattvic. All in all, too much food was eaten and many new friends were made over dinner. Everyone seemed thankful that Guruji had made it.
The next day I got up early to do a sitting practice on our hotel’s pier, facing the sunrise. We were the first to arrive at the shala, where we waited outside batting gnats while Eddie Stern and his crew prepared the registration tables for us. We were lucky to get spots for our mats in the front row. Slowly the room filled up, and then began to overflow into the other areas. We squeezed our mats a little closer together, and soon everyone had a spot.
When Guruji arrived, there was a hush, and everyone stood up. He had no need to yell, â€œSamasthithi!â€–a command that means â€œequal standingâ€–or get on your feet and prepare to do the opening mantra.
He smiled as he led us through the opening chant. Then he sat down and watched as Saraswati took over. She refused to use the mic as she talked us through the primary series. Sharmila worked the middle and back of the room, helping students in various poses.
It was wonderful to be with three generations of Joises again–and to have all of that female energy in the room supporting Guruji. Saraswati’s count was medium-tempo and even, and it was a joy to follow her. This was my first led class with her, and I’m a huge fan. She and Shamila have so much of Guruji’s good nature and sattvic energy.
Soon the room was hot and humid. I hadn’t practiced in a week because I’d been fighting off a cold. Yet somehow I had one of my best practices in memory – strong, flexible and focused. Stealing glances at Guruji and feeling his presence helped! I felt like I had come home. All of my past experiences with Guruji, dating back to 2000, came rushing back to me–and there was nowhere else in the world I’d rather have been.
On Sunday I again did an early sitting practice on the pier, and again we arrived early to the shala and found spots in the front row.
Everyone’s head turned when Tim Miller (the first American certified to teach Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga) walked in–another senior teacher!–and there were hugs all around.
Guruji’s opening chant was strong and loud; he certainly didn’t need the mic he refused to use. He then sat on the edge of his seat and led us almost all the way through a fast-paced version of the majority of the standing poses before Saraswati took over. Again I sneaked glances and often saw him sitting on the edge of his seat watching us.
At the end of class, we paid our respects. At one point we were told not to go on stage but to greet him from a discreet distance because the close proximity tires him out. A few minutes later, Guruji and his helpers were moving his chair so that he could be closer to the students.
The next day, Memorial Day, it was cooler, and Guruji arrived wearing a monkey (stocking) cap and a broad smile. As he came in, the room quieted and everyone stood at the front of their mats, palms in prayer. The atmosphere was one of reverence and respect–as it had been all weekend.
Guruji led the opening chant even more strongly than he had on previous days. Again he led us through the standing poses, his voice booming. Near the end Saraswati took over, and Shammi (Sharmila’s nickname) adjusted students in the back rows. Eddie Stern and his daughter practiced behind us. Indeed, there were many children practicing along with the adults, while other children (and babies) waited in the wings.
Saraswati’s count (the time in which we hold poses) is longer than Guruji’s, and as on previous days navasana (boat pose), urdhva dandasana (L-shaped headstand) and utpluthi (lifting off the floor with your arms while in lotus) seemed to take forever. She also had some stern reminders for us – such as “No hurry!” when people left chaturanga dandasana (push-up pose) too early and “Head back! Head back!” in poses such as ubaya padangusthasana (both big toes pose). During the final seconds of utpluthi, Saraswati kept telling us to lift up (just as her father does) and chided those in the back of the room for cheating.
Since this was the final day of the workshop, we came to standing at the front of the mat after the final vinyasa. Guruji stood up and led us in the Mangala Mantra (closing chant), and his voice was even stronger than before. After one final sun salutation, he told us to lie down and take rest. Instead of obeying, everyone got up and applauded him–our way of showing him how happy we were to have had the privilege to see him. It was an emotional moment, and my eyes welled up with tears.
Later there was more picture-taking and hugging and touching of his feet, during which he smiled and smiled. I also had my photo taken with Saraswati, who asked, â€œWhen are you coming to India?â€ â€œSometime this year,â€ I promised. Now I have to make good on it.
Before they left, Saraswati said the thing we wanted most to hear–that she and the family would continue to come back and teach there–with her father, of course.